In this guide, we will review the differences between the three file format systems on Windows: NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT, and highlight the reasons why you should use any of them when formatting storage disks. Read on until the end to know everything in detail about NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT file systems.
The difference between NTFS, FAT32 and exFAT
Windows gives you three different file format systems: NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT when you start formatting (reformatting) internal or external storage drives, USB flash drives, or external SD memory cards.
However, Windows is very conservative and vain in explaining the differences between the three file systems. Therefore, we need to explain these differences in detail to help you choose the appropriate type of format based on each situation. But before we delve into the fray of details and differences, let us first explain what the term “file system” means.
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We're not technical engineers, but we know a thing or two about programming and operating systems. In fact, you don't have to be a software engineer to know what the term “file system” means.
The file system is the system responsible for organizing the files inside the hard drive and determining the types of data that the hard drive can store and attach to the files, including file names, permissions, and many other attributes.
Windows supports three types of file systems, and the names of these systems have certainly caught your attention at one point, and you have wondered what the commonalities and differences between each of them are.
The first system is NTFS, which is considered the most common and also the most modern. Windows uses the NTFS format for the storage sector responsible for storing its data and information. Meaning the C sector/partition must be in NTFS format, which is a requirement of Windows itself. By default, NTFS is the file system installed on all internal storage drives.
While it came before it, the FAT32 format, which is not as efficient as NTFS and does not have the same advantages as the NTFS format. However, FAT32 is better compatible with other operating systems, and is supported by more devices and operating systems than NTFS.
The exFAT format is a more modern alternative to the FAT32 format. Likewise, it supports more devices and operating systems than the NTFS format, however, it is not as popular as the FAT32 format.
What is NTFS file system in detail?
When you install a new Windows on any storage partition, the operating system automatically formats the partition in NTFS format. Windows loves this kind of modern format.
However, there are also limitations to the file types and file sizes that NTFS supports. But it ensures more flexibility in the supported file types, and supports file sizes so huge that you may never feel these limitations.
NTFS first appeared on Windows
Without a doubt, NTFS is packed with many advantages that FAT32 and exFAT lack. For example, but not limited to, the NTFS file system format supports more permissions to protect and secure files, backups for backups, Journal Change technology that may enhance the speed of system recovery in case of errors or problems, what is known as storage disk quotas, hard links, And more features that we may not be able to list here.
These privileges may not be very important to the average consumer, but at the very least, they will benefit from the permissions that give them more file protection techniques.
Therefore, the file system of the Windows partition must be NTFS. If you are going to install a group of programs on an external storage disk or another sector on the same hard drive, it is of course better for this sector to be in NTFS format as well.
In fact, if you have a large number of storage drives, and the issue of compatibility with a specific type of file is not a problem for you, it is better to go ahead and format them all to the NTFS file system.
It is the best and most popular format that is compatible with most of the file types we deal with in our daily life. It is impossible to have size issues with it because it supports very huge file sizes.
This doesn't mean it's a perfect file system either. The first problem that you may encounter while formatting a sector/partition on a hard drive in NTFS format is compatibility with some file types.
Although it is compatible with all versions of Windows, starting with Windows XP, it is not the ideal choice for dealing with other operating systems.
For example, for Apple Mac devices, it can read NTFS storage disks, but it cannot write to them. Some Linux distributions allow you to write to NTFS partitions, but not all support reading them.
The storage units on all SONY consoles, including the PlayStation 5, do not support NTFS. Even if you try to connect a hard drive to your outdated Xbox 360, the console won't be able to read it.
But fortunately, Microsoft's new generation of consoles already support the NTFS file system.
So in terms of compatibility, the NTFS file system is compatible with all versions of Windows, but it only supports reading on Mac computers, while reading restrictions appear on some Linux distributions.
The maximum file size with the NTFS file system is up to 128 petabytes, while the maximum partition size can also be up to 128 petabytes.
The ideal environment for using the NTFS format is if you have a storage disk dedicated to the Windows system, especially internal storage disks.
What is FAT32 file system in detail?
The FAT32 file system was first introduced on Windows 95, making it the oldest of the three file formats.
Indeed, it was preceded by other types of file systems, FAT16 which was used with MS-DOS and Windows 3, but FAT32 came to replace it starting with Windows 95.
It is very old, which is an advantage in itself. Older age in the file system means it is the main criterion. See for yourself on most flash drives you buy today, they usually come with a FAT32 file system and for good reason. This standard makes it compatible with all computers, both old and modern. The only exception are consoles.
Then come the flaws. The first downside that will stand in your way while relying on the NTFS file system is the file size factor, as you cannot store a file larger than 4GB on a partition/storage with a FAT32 file system.
This is actually a strong reason why we have to replace the FAT32 file system with NTFS on internal and external computer storage drives, and even on USB flash drives.
As for the partition size, it must not exceed 8 TB. It's not a big problem unless you have a high-capacity storage drive, so it's both a problem and not a problem at the same time.
This does not mean that the FAT32 file system is so poor. The point here is that you won't get good use out of it with internal or external storage drives connected to Windows.
Initially, the FAT32 file system lacks the security techniques and great permission privileges that the NTFS file system has. The presence of this format has also declined over time as all modern versions of Windows require NTFS.
But to be fair, it's still supported on Windows, Linux, macOS, consoles, and anything with a USB port you might come across in this world. But with file size restrictions of no more than 4GB and maximum partition limits of less than 8TB, some people tend to avoid it and resort to another, more flexible format.
Therefore, the only case when you should use this format is when you want to ensure maximum compatibility with all different devices and operating systems. As long as you don't have a 4GB file, you are completely safe from its limitations.
What is exFAT file system in detail?
The exFAT file system was born in 2006, and has gradually been integrated into older versions of Windows, including Windows XP and Vista.
The exFAT file system is specially developed and optimized for USB flash cutting. More importantly, it is a lightweight file system such as FAT32.
However, he tries to be on his own. That is, exFAT lacks the privileges of NTFS, but it does get rid of the hard limitations of FAT32.
The good news is that you can store huge files with the exFAT format with sizes exceeding 4GB by a wide margin. It's not as compatible as FAT32 either, but at least it's better than NTFS.
For example, while macOS only supports reading to the NTFS file system, it also supports reading and writing to the exFAT file system.
With the right software, you will have full access and control over exFAT file systems with Linux as well. On the other hand, PS5/PS4 console supports exFAT format, but not the same with PS3. Microsoft's recent consoles, starting with the XBOX One, support the exFAT format, but this is not the case with the Xbox 360 either.
So, in terms of compatibility, it is king because it supports all Windows and macOS systems and with some software gives you full access on older Linux distributions.
In practice, there are more devices that provide full support for the exFAT file system than for the NTFS file system. But some old devices lack these privileges and are satisfied with the FAT32 file system.
The maximum file size is 128 petabytes and the maximum partition size is 128 petabytes. So, the exFAT format tries to be the best of both worlds, it takes away some of the privileges of the NTFS file system but not all of them, but it does away with most of the limitations and breaks the shackles that fence the garden of the FAT32 file system.
However, in most cases you may feel that it does not offer anything new over the NTFS format system, and this fact is what reflects the popularity of NTFS over any other file system. So, when do you need exFAT? Only if you'll be dealing with files larger than 4GB and want to enjoy the same flexible compatibility with a greater number of different devices and operating systems.
The difference between FAT32 and NTFS
In short, the NTFS file format supports larger file sizes and larger disk sizes, but it doesn't have the same compatibility as FAT32.
In comparison, NTFS supports many important features such as security, advanced file recording and locking unlike FAT32. Therefore, NTFS is considered the most convenient file system, especially for users of modern Windows systems.
While other operating systems such as Linux and macOS are able to read NTFS sectors, they will not be able to write to them, at least without using custom drivers.
Overall, NTFS is faster than FAT32, however, it is not a deciding factor to claim that either brings significant performance improvements since the difference in speed depends largely on other factors. As a simple example, a PCIe NVMe SSD can still outperform a USB 2.0 SSD by light years.
Moreover, FAT32 is literally universal, even if it is very old. The longer lifespan is also an advantage as it ensures compatibility with very old devices.
This is a great feature if you plan to transfer files between multiple devices regardless of the operating systems they are running, provided that the file sizes do not exceed 4GB. So, whenever a USB port is available, you can be sure that the FAT32 file system is always at your service.
The difference between exFAT and FAT32
exFAT comes to replace FAT32 and tries to break the barriers that FAT32 imposes on file sizes. While FAT32 cannot handle partitions larger than 8TB or files larger than 4GB, exFAT is able to handle them even up to 128PB.
However, the crucial factor that makes FAT32 one of the best file formats is “compatibility”. While exFAT attempts to fix the limitations, it lacks the compatibility benefits of FAT32.
Fortunately, all modern consoles, Apple Macs, and all modern Windows devices are able to handle the exFAT format without any hassle.
But if you are using an older Linux distribution, you may need some additional drivers to handle the exFAT file system. At the same time, old consoles such as PS3 and Xbox 360 are not compatible with it in any way.
Another interesting thing is that exFAT file system is faster than FAT32 but the speed gap between them is still similar to that found in comparing FAT32 with NTFS. Therefore, the speed factor depends mainly on your device and its components, and the file system, whatever its type, will not cause a significant or noticeable impact on performance.
The difference between NTFS and exFAT
NTFS and exFAT have many things in common since they are the newer ones. For example, both can handle files and storage partitions up to 128 petabytes in size.
But NTFS is still theoretically faster and has more security features, automatic correction of corrupt files using NTFS self-healing technology, and many other perks that make it most suitable for use with internal storage drives in Windows computers.
One unique feature that makes exFAT the best is portability. For example, you will find many restrictions when using the NTFS format with operating systems other than Windows.
As for exFAT, you can install older Linux distributions or on console devices, and thus it is an ideal choice for external storage drives that are expected to be used with a different set of operating systems.
So, while NTFS is the best file system for internal storage, exFAT is the undisputed best for portable storage.
The problem is that you may sometimes encounter some obstacles with exFAT caused by the device being incompatible with this file system, which forces you to format the partition with FAT32.
Read also: How to open exe files on Windows computers
This was a comprehensive comparison to clarify the differences between the three most popular file systems, NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT. While NTFS is more popular for supporting files larger than 4GB, it doesn't have the same compatibility capabilities as the FAT32 file system.
The exFAT file system attempts to get rid of the sins of FAT32, and supports larger file sizes and larger storage partitions, but it does not have the same compatibility as the FAT32 file system.
On any internal storage drive that works with Windows, NTFS may be the best choice. But with external storage drives exFAT will be preferable.